Plesiste, Czech Republic – circa August, 2011
One of the most anticipated aspects of our trip to Czech last August was going with our friend Martin to his family cottage in the tiny village of Plesiste. We had heard, of course, the stories about the village and the Friday evening ritual of “Two Quick Beers” – that time-honored tradition, when Martin joins his father and two friends from the village (Jeff and Duje) at an ancient pub in the next village, doing what people do at pubs across the world at week’s end – trading stories, renewing friendships and drinking beer. Hearing about it was one thing – experiencing it was something we will never forget.
We arrived in Prague early on a Friday morning, after flying all night from New York’s JFK. When Martin picked us up and drove us back to his apartment in the city we were exhausted, having been up for most of the last 24 hours. Wanting to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible though, we decided on a short nap just to take the edge off. Martin had big plans for our weekend, which included the trip to Plesiste, a quadrathlon (kayak, swim, bike, run) in his hometown of Sedlcany (Melissa and I would be part of a relay team), and some sightseeing on the way back to Prague on Sunday.
As we made the hour drive south toward Sedlcany, the modern, urban feel of Prague gradually gave way to a more rustic scene of rolling hills and little river towns and clusters of centuries old homes with red-tiled roofs. We noticed dozens of people on bicycles – not cycling for exercise, exactly, but to get from place to place – a means of transportation, and that seemed to us at once both quaint and progressive.
As the scenery became more rural by the mile, it seemed the temperature dropped in corresponding degrees. When we left Raleigh it was classic August weather – hot and humid. Perfect for growing tomatoes, but not so comfortable for people. So the temperature change was cathartic and soothing as we drove along, taking in the scenery.
We stopped in Sedlcany to meet our friends Tomas and Pavlina and pick up race packets for the next day’s quadrathlon. Martin and Tomas grew up in Sedlcany and kayaked together on various teams, Martin eventually rising to the Czech National Kayak team. We had met them in 2009 while in Cozumel, when Martin and Tomas and our friend Jess did the Ironman there (Melissa and I were spectators that year, then did the race a year later). Despite the language barrier we became fast friends, so it was wonderful to see them and their new addition, “Little” Tomas. We had a beer and a delicious lunch in town then picked up our race packets for the quadrathlon. We made plans to meet the next morning before the race, then said our goodbyes and made the 15-mile drive west to Plesiste.
Plesiste is a village of just eleven cottages and the paved road actually dead ends there. When you arrive in Plesiste, you have come both literally and figuratively to the end of the road. Evidence of inhabitants in this village dates back to the 1330’s, some 160 years before Columbus stumbled haphazardly upon the New World. It seems there was a fort here that was used by local bandits. The name Plesiste comes from the word “pelesit”, which roughly translated, means a den. In this case, Plesiste was where the bandits spent time between invasions, sleeping, plotting and I imagine, drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
Martin’s family has owned this property for generations and the cottage was built in the 1920’s. It is built of stone, covered with plaster, and like nearly all of the buildings there, has a red tile roof. The interior consists of two bedrooms, and a central kitchen. There is also a bed situated atop the hearth in the kitchen and in the wintertime this is the best place to be, because of the radiating heat from the wood-burning stove underneath. There is an ancient stone barn next to the cottage whose roof collapsed due to heavy snow years ago. It’s walls still stand, witness to a century of history.
One of my favorite features of the cottage was the outhouse. There was no working toilet at the time of our visit, giving the place a woodsy, Arcadian feel. I had heard stories of outhouses from my Mother’s childhood days and of course my Grandparents told many similar stories, but I had never experienced it myself. I was thrilled. It was just as I imagined an outhouse should be,
complete with a Czech newspaper, of which I could not read a word, but somehow enjoyed just holding, looking over the pictures and indecipherable text. I cannot quite explain my excitement at the outhouse other than the novelty of it and the connectedness to earlier times it represented. Martin assured me that my enthusiasm for it would be greatly tempered if experienced at night during a Czech winter, and I suppose I can see his point. (Since our visit, Martin told us a running toilet has been installed, which disappointed me greatly).
There was a peacefulness to this place, and it reminded me vaguely of certain sections of Western North Carolina – cool, hilly, rustic and clannish – a throwback to earlier times. I could feel my pulse slow as soon as we arrived.
There are only three permanent residents in the village – our soon to be friend, Jeff being one of them, and the cottages are somewhat spread out. Because of the hills, it is difficult to tell who is home and who is not. To address this, Martin’s dad took to raising a Czech flag atop a tall pole at the upper corner of the old barn. If the flag is up, the Dvoraks are home. And so Martin raised the red, white and blue of the Czech banner and we readied ourselves for the evening festivities.
A little later, around 6pm, Martin’s Dad arrived from Sedlcany, where he lives during the week. Duje walked over from his cottage, a hundred yards or so away. Finally, Jeff walked over from his home, also within a stones throw. All three of them wore matching striped shirts and comical-looking black eyeglass frames. They joked and laughed in that easy way of old friends, and we felt it a special treat to be a part of the whole scene. They had known each other forever and made it a point to never miss their Friday night Two Quick Beers sessions – not even in the dead of winter. “Two Quick Beers”, by the way, was named with tongue firmly planted in cheek, because it typically is a lengthy affair, which involves considerably more than two beers.
After introductions to Duje and Jeff, Martin suggested we make our way to the pub. We would be making the three-mile trek from Plesiste to a pub in the village Brzina by mountain bike through rolling fields and farmland. The route to the pub, Martin explained, was mostly down hill. Coming back later that night though, we would again be on mountain bikes, in the dark, going up hill and likely, quite besotted. It was going to be an interesting evening.
A 500 year-old pub and newfound friends
It was around 7pm as we began the short mountain bike ride and the sun was starting its gradual descent, casting a hazy, orange hue along the horizon. Already, it was cooling considerably and we brought along sweatshirts for later that evening. Riding through the fields, we were the subject of suspicious and disapproving glances by a small herd of cows. We inhaled that invigorating aroma that you can only get in the country, late in the summer – the rich, vaguely sweet smell of loamy soil and damp grass and clean, pine-tinged air, with the faint aroma of wood smoke from a fire off in the distance. It was the scent of green – summer’s late season perfume and it was wonderful.
About halfway, we stopped at a bridge over a good-sized stream, which is also named Brzina. Here, we were introduced to one of their Friday night customs. Duje passed around an unrecognizable bottle, which turned out to be a Croatian liqueur (he is originally from Croatia), and we toasted each other while all taking shots. It tasted vaguely like Jegermeister and was warm going down. While Jeff and Martin’s father spoke to each other in Czech, Martin and Duje – the only bilingual ones of the group – translated, and Melissa & I just listened and enjoyed. As the warmth of the liqueur settled into our stomachs and the stream purled beguilingly below us, we exchanged knowing smiles – we could not think of anywhere in the world we would rather be. After another mile or so of slow peddling through brush and single track, we made it to the village of Brzina.
The pub here is over 500 years old, which I found astounding. Even more incredible, the only major structural change in the building in half a millennia was an upgrade from the original thatched roof to the now standard red clay tile. Originally, the pub was a “coaching inn”, where people could exchange their horses for a fee. The bridge we had crossed earlier was, in the early days, the only place to ford the stream for miles in either direction, so fresh horses were in high demand. As stories go, members of the ruling class hid in the inn during the Swedish invasion of the 16th Century. In return for this safe harbor, the owners of the inn were excused from paying taxes – an arrangement I would imagine pub owners everywhere would gladly accept today.
There were only two other people there when we arrived, and after depositing our bikes in a nearby shed, we sat with them at a long table in the main room. They were regulars and known by everyone in our group, and after Martin made introductions, we sat there, listening to the banter. From time to time Martin would interpret a portion of the conversation, and we chatted with Duje as well, but mostly we just listened and took it all in. The lady who runs the pub – a grandmotherly type with a happy, warm smile and sparkling blue eyes – filled gigantic mugs for everyone with a magnificent locally brewed Czech pilsner. After we toasted again and conversation started back up, I just looked around the room and thought about the years and centuries of Friday nights just like this that people have spent in this tiny pub.
A few minutes after pouring the beer, she brought out wonderful, warm rye bread and the most incredible cheese I have ever tasted. White and soft (like my rapidly expanding belly), the cheese resembled brie. It was marinated in olive oil and garlic and onions, and when combined with the warm rye and fresh beer, produced gastric bliss the likes of which I have rarely experienced. My mouth is watering as I type this paragraph.
After a while, we moved into a dining room area adjacent to the main bar, where we continued stuffing ourselves with gusto. About the time I thought I couldn’t take in another bite, the wife of one of the men we joined earlier brought a homemade apple strudel. Flaky, sweet and perfectly baked – wars have been fought over less desirable things. It was piping hot, fresh out of the oven and impossibly good. With deep, determined breaths, we managed to find some extra room and the gluttony continued. Just when we were ready to burst, the pub owner brought us another round of beers and shots of some Czech liqueur of dubious origins that caused me to loose feeling in my extremities for a short time.
I thought we would surely have to spend the night right there. There was no way we were going to attempt to mountain bike back to Plesiste. To do so would be to flirt with calamity. But deep down inside, I knew we were going to bike back, uphill in the dark while attempting to stifle violent gastric revolt. We were with Martin, after all, and fun is always accompanied by low level fear, nagging discomfort or a vague sense of dread – sometimes all three. He always takes you out of your comfort zone and although you curse him for it in the moment, it always results in laughs and good stories later on. This night would be no exception.
Peddling by the light of a Bohemian moon
Finally, when we could eat and drink no more, we paid our tab in Czech Korunas which, after conversion, ended up costing around $30 US – for all of us – a very inexpensive evening and we were happy that Czech had not adopted the Euro. We bid the pub owner goodbye, thanking her for her hospitality, then waddled slowly into the cool night. It had dropped a good twenty degrees or so since our arrival several hours before and we were glad to have the sweatshirts. We collected the bikes, donned our headlamps and started peddling into the inky darkness.
What was easy downhill peddling before now turned into an uphill slog through muddy, rutted single track. Martin and Duje were in front and I was doing my best to keep sight of them. Melissa was behind me, followed by Martin’s Dad. At one point there was a sudden rise in the trail and I lost momentum in the soft mud, falling over into the tall grass, resulting in a machine gun staccato of colorful phrases. I got back on the bike and with great effort, managed to turn the crank of the pedals and regain momentum. I could still see the jumpy beams of Martin and Duje’s headlamps up ahead, so just kept going as best as I could amid the ominous rumblings from my bloated stomach.
Things look different at night, and I recognized nothing about the trail. It was a little disconcerting as I realized that I would never, ever find my way back to Plesiste if left on my own and this provided adequate motivation to keep peddling.
After re-crossing the stream, things felt a little more familiar and soon after we came to a strenuous uphill section in a large, open field. Everyone’s heart was pounding from the effort, so we paused about half way up to rest and take in the spectacular full moon. There was a valley down below us and Duje explained that in this spot, your voice would carry forever, then ricochet off the valley walls back to you in a pronounced echo. We each took turns, literally howling at the moon and listening to the valley’s retort. Standing there in the dark, howling at the moon – now this was fun.
After making it back to the village, we parted ways with Duje and Jeff and readied for bed. We had started our day in North Carolina some 36 hours earlier and found ourselves now in a tiny village, deep in the heart of old Bohemia. It was the first night of our trip – my first to Europe and Melissa’s second. And though we should have been well past exhausted, we just stared at each other with big, goofy grins on our faces, thinking about what we had just done. Before long, we faded off to sleep in the bed atop that kitchen hearth and slept like we had never slept before.
It was the start of an incredible ten days in Czech Republic.